Let’s be honest – trainspotting isn’t “cool”. To the outside world, trainspotting is seen as the reserve of socially-awkward middle-aged men, obsessed with something so trivial as collecting train numbers, standing around on wet, cold, grey platforms with Thermos in one hand and notepad in the other.
It’s a cruel stereotype. While it is not without foundation, it certainly doesn’t reflect the wider enthusiast community.
This image creates a problem when the time comes to admit, somewhat ashamedly, to our friends, colleagues and loved ones that we are railway enthusiasts. By association and assumption, we are therefore trainspotters. Being a railway enthusiast is synonymous as being a trainspotter. But it’s time to set the record straight.
All trainspotters are, by definition, railway enthusiasts. However, not all railway enthusiasts are trainspotters.
Speaking as an enthusiast, I can completely understand why trainspotters are the target of such derision. Back in the 1950s, trainspotting was all the rage and with good reason. The network was populated by then-modern BR Standard designs, engines from Big Four and even pre-Grouping eras. Then, if you were that way inclined, there were the latest diesels and electrics. In short then, plenty to spot and take interest in. No matter where you went in the country, you were sure to spot some remarkable motive power in one way or another.
Nowadays, locomotive-hauled trains are almost a thing of the past, and what remains is largely limited to Class 66s and the odd Class 37. Passenger trains now are all multiple units. The designs are standard with little regional variation. The railways of today are boring, uniform, devoid of character and substance.
This view was exacerbated by the recent ‘Trainspotting Live!’ programme (complete with exclamation mark to make it seem exciting) on BBC Four. It attempted vainly to make trainspotting mainstream, to give it the renaissance that The Great British Bake Off has done for home-baking.
Sadly, all it achieved was to perpetuate the notion that we’re all a bunch of weirdos whose sole reason for living is to spot trains. Trying to get excited about a pair of HSTs standing side-by-side at King’s Cross really didn’t help – far from being the rare coincidence espoused by the programme, HSTs at Kings Cross are a common experience for the majority of commuters on the ECML. You’re not going to get “the man on the street” excited by something he takes for granted.
On the whole, ‘Trainspotting Live!’ was a patronising, demeaning, ill-informed and uninspired look at a misunderstood hobby. Its biggest problem is that it did nothing to enhance the image of the preservation movement and therein lies its ultimate failing.
Railways across the country are crying out for volunteers, especially from the younger generation who are more time-rich than their parents. The youth of today are the preservationists of tomorrow. How on earth are railways going to recruit these people if railway enthusiasm is portrayed as being sad and pathetic?
For instance, if you spend all your time, money and energy into restoring and running a classic car and taking it to rallies, you’re seen as a perfectly normal human being. Do the same with a steam locomotive and you’re labelled a weirdo. The hypocrisy here is that the locomotive and car in question may be of the same vintage and that said individual may be interested in both classic cars and locomotives.
Volunteering these days is a major platform for younger people to enhance their skills and employability. In a world where gaining practical, meaningful work experience is nigh-on impossible, and going to university is increasingly becoming beyond many people’s financial reach, volunteering is almost essential. It’s a hugely rewarding experience where, especially on railways, you’ll make friends and learn skills for life. And who knows, if you’re lucky, you may even gain full-time employment on the railway.
Enthusiasts are some of the friendliest, knowledgeable and open people you’ll ever meet, happy to impart their experience and skills onto the younger generation. Yes, you get the odd anorak, but certainly no more so than any other hobby.
But railways will continue to suffer from a lack of younger volunteers if the enthusiast community doesn’t address its image problem first.